The Chronicle Review

James Joyce for Ordinary Blokes?

Lipnitzki, Roger Viollet, Getty Images

James Joyce, 1934
September 21, 2009

On June 5, 2009, a first edition of James Joyce's Ulysses was sold in London for £275,000 (around $450,000), the highest price ever paid for a 20th-century book. According to the dealer, Pom Harrington: "The book is unopened and unread, except for the famous last chapter which contains all the naughty bits." Another copy of Ulysses, in the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, belonged to Ernest Hemingway, who said about Joyce: "I like him very much as a friend and think no one can write better, technically, I learned much from him." Yet, except for its first and final pages, that volume, too, remains uncut. Since its publication (and clandestine distribution, to foil the censors), in 1922, Ulysses has been widely admired as the greatest monument of modern fiction. In 1998, when the editorial board of the Modern Library compiled a list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, Joyce's great work ranked No. 1. It was inevitable that Ulysses, too, became grist for the current popularizing mill, the fad of finding practical applications in formidable literary classics.

Despite its unique prestige, it is a book more venerated than read. June 16, the day in 1904 on which Ulysses is set, is annually celebrated as Bloomsday throughout the world, with little more attention to the text than Fourth of July vacationers pay to the Declaration of Independence. Dense with abstruse allusions, syntactically challenging, and longer than Moby-Dick (214,681 words) or Uncle Tom's Cabin (180,710 words), Ulysses (268,822 words) seems, as Joyce himself jested in its even more forbidding successor, Finnegans Wake, "his usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles." Uttered as he lay dying in Zurich on January 13, 1941, Joyce's last words are a challenge to anyone reading the master of literary modernism: "Does nobody understand?"

According to Haines, a visiting Englishman in Ulysses who disparages Stephen Dedalus's theory of Hamlet, "Shakespeare is the happy hunting ground of all minds that have lost their balance." The same could be said of Joyce, who told his French translator, Jacques Benoîst-Méchin: "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of ensuring one's immortality." According to the Modern Language Association International Bibliography, Ulysses has generated 2,656 scholarly studies. By contrast, the MLA lists only 1,477 entries for Marcel Proust's masterwork, In Search of Lost Time, and only 414 entries for Mrs. Dalloway, whose author, Virginia Woolf, dismissed Ulysses as "a mis-fire." In a diary entry for September 6, 1922, she wrote: "The book is diffuse. It is brackish. It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious but in the literary sense."

Yet, while the Bloomsbury Cult, whose principal deity is Woolf, flourishes, it lacks the authority of the Church of Joyce, whose sacred text is Ulysses. Its hunters—happy or hapless, deconstructionists, feminists, postcolonialists, queer theorists, and others—tend to belong to the species homo joyceanus, which rarely mates with other modernists. My university employs numerous specialists in modern literature, and, though they frequently teach Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and insist on keeping Ulysses on the M.A. required-reading list, none to my knowledge has taught Ulysses since the departure of our sole Joycean, a decade ago.

In Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce's Masterpiece (W.W. Norton, September), Declan Kiberd pronounces Ulysses "modernism's greatest masterpiece." But, though the author is a professor of Anglo-Irish literature at University College Dublin, he aims to rescue the novel from academic captivity. The paradox that Kiberd begins with and, like Odysseus returning to Penelope, comes back to at the end is that "a book which set out to celebrate the common man and woman endured the sad fate of never being read by most of them." He provides insightful commentary on how Ulysses recapitulates and transcends The Odyssey, the Bible, The Divine Comedy, and Hamlet, but he is most intent on demonstrating that Joyce's book is positively Whitmanesque, an enduring epic of the people and for the people. Ulysses, he proclaims, is "an extended hymn to the dignity of everyday living," best appreciated by those who do that living.

In 18 chapters, with gerundive titles such as "Waking," "Learning," "Eating," and "Ogling," Kiberd walks his reader through the 18 episodes of the novel, an account of Stephen Dedalus's and Leopold Bloom's perambulations through 1904 Dublin. He is especially informative about the Irish context of a work that is set in the provincial capital a couple of generations after the famine and after English supplanted Gaelic as the lingua franca, koine of the realm, in occupied Éire. And he has much to say about how a dialectic of animus and anima is embodied in Leopold Bloom's androgyny. But what distinguishes this study from the bulging midrash on Joyce's canon is Kiberd's central contention that Ulysses is the magnum opus of populism. Not only does Joyce lavish attention on the unexceptional activities—breakfasts and bowel movements—of unexceptional characters, but, Kiberd argues, common folk not unlike Leopold and Molly Bloom, Gerty MacDowell, and Ned Lambert, rather than credentialed intellectuals, are the novel's ideal readers. "The book was written to be enjoyed by ordinary men and women," he maintains. Nevertheless, even Nora Barnacle, the former chambermaid whom Joyce cherished precisely because she was not an intellectual, pronounced Ulysses "dirty" and asked her husband, "Why can't you write sensible books that people can understand?"

Late in the novel, we are told that Leopold Bloom "had applied to the works of William Shakespeare more than once for the solution of difficult problems in imaginary or real life." Reading Ulysses as a "book of wisdom," and contending that its author "insisted on the use-value of art," Kiberd adopts the same approach to Joyce himself. In doing so, he makes common cause with other recent books that attempt to apply literary classics to everyday behavior, from boardroom to bedroom. They include Robert A. Brawer's Fictions of Business: Insights on Management From Great Literature (John Wiley, 1998) and Joseph L. Badaracco Jr.'s Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature (Harvard Business School Press, 2006). In How Proust Can Change Your Life (Pantheon Books, 1997), Alain de Botton interprets the French master's seven volumes as a self-help manual. And several writers attempt to draw practical tips from Shakespeare, prince of the literary pantheon. Among them are John O. Whitney and Tina Packer in Power Plays: Shakespeare's Lessons in Leadership and Management (Simon & Schuster, 2001); Norman Augustine and Kenneth Adelman in Shakespeare in Charge: The Bard's Guide to Leading and Succeeding on the Business Stage (Hyperion-Talk-Miramax, 1999); Paul Corrigan in Shakespeare on Management (Kogan Page, 1999); and Jay M. Shafritz in Shakespeare on Management: Wise Business Counsel from the Bard (HarperBusiness, 1999).

Though Kiberd neglects to point out that Ulysses instructs us in how to cook pork kidneys and fill out racing forms, he does insist that "this is a book with much to teach us about the world—advice on how to cope with grief; how to be frank about death in the age of its denial; how women have their own sexual desires and so also do men; how to walk and think at the same time; how the language of the body is often more eloquent than any words; how to tell a joke and how not to tell a joke; how to purge sexual relations of all notions of ownership; or how the way a person approaches food can explain who they really are."

Joyce himself claimed otherwise. In 1922 he complained to a fellow novelist, Djuna Barnes: "The pity is the public will demand and find a moral in my book—or worse they may take it in some more serious way, and on the honor of a gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it." Joyce was not entirely serious about that disclaimer, any more than Mark Twain was when he posted his famous warning at the beginning of Huckleberry Finn: "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot." Nevertheless, such persons need to proceed with caution.

Ulysses is indeed a triumph of what Northrop Frye called "the low mimetic mode"; it elevates plebeian characters and banal actions to artistic consideration and, celebrating them, performs what Kiberd, in an aptly Catholic metaphor, calls "the sacrament of everyday life." But his exhortation that "it is time to reconnect Ulysses to the everyday lives of real people" is not in itself enough to overcome the paradox that the novel is read not by "real people," but only by students and scholars. Real men may or may not eat quiche, but the "real people" Kiberd seems to have in mind rarely, according to surveys by the National Endowment for the Arts, read any books, and when they do, the authors are more likely to be Stephen King, James Patterson, or Danielle Steel than James Joyce.

Moreover, despite the admirable lucidity of his own style, devoid of preening jargon and turgid syntax, Kiberd's erudite book—though issued by a trade publisher, W.W. Norton, and not a university press—is not likely to be read by the "real people" he sentimentalizes and patronizes. "Modern living," he complains, "has been devalued by gloomy intellectuals who failed to appreciate just how intelligent, cheerful, and resourceful people were in their daily lives." Henry David Thoreau's claim that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation might be excessively gloomy, but nostalgie de la boue, the impulse to romanticize the commonplace, is the most insidious form of snobbery. It does not in any case explain why the masses of intelligent, cheerful, and resourceful people are not reading Ulysses.

No amount of populist pep talk can camouflage the fact that Ulysses is a demanding book. "The demand that I make of my reader," Joyce told Max Eastman, "is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works." Few readers are willing to meet that demand. Though "elite" has become one of the most damaging epithets in the arsenal of political invective, it is best to admit that Joyce's work—caveat for the masses—resists easy access. Membership in the self-selecting community that responds to Joyce's challenge is not a function of class, wealth, or race, but rather of stubborn ardor. Its readers are convinced of a correlation between arduousness of effort and aesthetic pleasure.

Furthermore, the difficulties of reading Ulysses are integral to its art; the experience of negotiating and assimilating its unexpected words and sentences is more important than any practical lesson a well-meaning guide might draw from it for us. While packaging Joyce as a universal mentor, Kiberd also sums up what we need to take from Homer's epic: "The wisdom to be gleaned from the Odyssey is clear enough: that there is nothing better in life than when a man and woman live in harmony and that such happiness, though felt intensely by the couple themselves, can never be fully described."

But life is short and art is long, and if that's all there is, why not just settle for Kiberd's summary instead of struggling through more than 12,000 lines of Homer's challenging verse? Disguised as praise, books that offer practical uses for literary classics are in fact acts of iconoclastic arrogance. Proclaiming their fealty to the ordinary, they are driven by impatience with—even contempt for—the actual experience of reading extraordinary works.

Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio, author of "Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth" (W.W. Norton, 2005), and editor of a new edition of M.E. Ravage's "An American in the Making" (Rutgers, 2009).